Will Yamaha choose its champion?


If you were the main man at the Yamaha Motor Company, who would you want to win this year’s MotoGP world championship? Before making your choice, you need to consider that Yamaha’s main reason for being in MotoGP is to market its motorcycle and scooter products around the world.

There’s only one answer, isn’t there? Which is why the conspiracy theorists are already muttering in the shadows, suggesting that a Valentino Rossi victory could be worth an extra 100 or maybe 200 million to Yamaha. So I ask them, 200 million what? Euros, dollars, yen? They don’t say, they just nod sagely. And they are probably right, up to a point.

If we humour the conspiracy theorists for a moment, we have to ask this question: would Yamaha consider taking sides in the Rossi versus Jorge Lorenzo duel? Would it, could it, should it?

We don’t know the answers and neither do the conspiracy theorists, so all we can do is look back in history and search for precedent.

Way back in 1968, Yamaha was in an identical situation, with two star riders duking it out for the most important prize in motorcycling. Only one thing was different: back then the biggest prize was the 250 title, because the 500 class was in a state of atrophy, with MV Agusta enjoying a long and tedious reign over a bunch of impoverished privateers.

The Yamaha rivals were two Britons – Phil Read and Bill Ivy – and there was an added complication. Yamaha had assumed command of the smaller classes, so it carved up the 250 and 125 spoils according to factory whim, imposing (illegal) team orders: Ivy would win the 250 title and Read would take the 125.

Read was deeply unhappy with the arrangement. He was usually the faster rider, so the orders were bad news for him, and he was convinced Ivy had gone behind his back to help himself to the 250 crown. Also, he felt hard done by, because he had won Yamaha’s first world titles and he had helped Ivy get his ride with the factory. If they had once been friends, they certainly weren’t in 1968, just like Rossi and Lorenzo now.

Ivy leads Yamaha team-mate Read and Honda’s Mike Hailwood at Clermont-Ferrand in 1967. The
following year their fight for the 250 world title turned nasty. Photo: Yamaha

“I was told without any discussion that Bill would win the 250 and I would win the 125,” says Read. “Bill had been a bit sneaky, doing a lot of background chatting with them.”

Many of us assume that Yamaha treat Rossi and Lorenzo the same, but that wasn’t the case with Read and Ivy. And if Yamaha staff took sides then, why not now?

Yamaha preferred Ivy, not for marketing reasons, but because team members liked him more than they liked Read.

“If the two of them visited the factory in Hamamatsu, Billy would go to the race department to talk about the latest bikes, while Ready would go to the admin office to talk money,” recalls Read’s Dutch mechanic Ferry Brouwer. “Or back in the workshop in Amsterdam, Billy would come round with some Cokes or some sandwiches, which was something Ready didn’t do.”

Another former factory Yamaha mechanic Mac Mackay adds, “The problem is that some people in R&D departments become fans of certain riders, which can be very dangerous.”

Photo: Yamaha

Brouwer has since seen Yamaha’s 1960s engine development sheets which confirm that factory staff gave Ivy special engine parts to make his bikes faster. So the favouritism was blatant.

In the end, however, it didn’t do Ivy any good. Both men went along with the team orders, Ivy giving up the lead in the 125 TT to help Read, who duly won the 125 crown at Brno with three races to go. A few hours later the pair lined up for the Czech 250 GP, Ivy looking forward to another win to take him one step closer to his dream of wearing the 250 crown. But he was in for a nasty shock.

“Bill had been telling everyone ‘I’m goin’ to win the 250, I’m goin’ to beat Ready’,” says self-styled rebel Read. “I’d heard all this, so as we lined up for the 250 race I said to him ‘OK Bill, if you think you can beat me when we’re riding to team orders, well, now you’re going have to race me for it’. He said ‘ah, f***in’ ‘ell, Phil’. So we raced, I won and he was second.”

The 250 title went down to the wire seven weeks later at Monza, where the feud descended into farce. Read won the race, so Ivy filed a protest, claiming his team-mate’s number plates didn’t comply with regulations. And if Ivy had won the race, Read would’ve protested that Ivy was below the FIM’s nine stone six minimum weight limit. Brouwer remembers the weekend: “It would’ve been more fun going to a funeral”.

Read and Ivy ended the season equal on points, the title going to Read on aggregate race times.

Ivy largely turned his attention to cars in ’69, seen here in an F2 Brabham at Thruxton

We will never know Ivy’s side of the story, because he lost his life during practice for the following year’s East German Grand Prix, when his Jawa 350 seized and flung him into a wall in the village of Hohenstein-Ernstthal, just a mile or so from the current Sachsenring.

Read, meanwhile, went on to win another five Grand Prix world titles with Yamaha and MV Agusta. He still ranks equal with Rossi as Yamaha’s most successful rider, with five world titles, even if they only wanted him to have four.

Right now, Rossi and Lorenzo are plotting and planning their last five races of the year. And what about Yamaha’s MotoGP management: MotoGP group leader Kouichi Tsuji, Yamaha Racing president Masahiko Nakajima and managing director Lin Jarvis? Surely they wouldn’t even consider taking sides. But what about those at the top of the Yamaha Motor Company, the number-crunchers whose eyes are focused only on the bottom line? Might they put company profits before sportsmanship?

In fact Tsuji, Nakajima and Jarvis have more to worry about than which of their riders should take the title. The closer and nastier the Rossi/Lorenzo title fight, the more chance of them making mistakes, which is exactly what happened at Misano where Rossi came in too late to change to slick tyres, consigning himself to a fifth-place finish, and Lorenzo fell victim to cold-ish tyres on a cold-ish track for his first non-score of the year.

Meanwhile Marc Márquez stormed to his fourth win of the year, taking 14 points out of Rossi’s championship advantage in one afternoon. This could yet become a three-way fight for the title.

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